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Klay Thompson Is Better Than Ever, but the Warriors Need Even More

The Golden State mainstay has been a Game 6 God before. With Kevin Durant out, Thompson will need to tap into the secret skills he’s been pocketing since KD arrived to stay alive in the NBA Finals.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Klay Thompson has largely taken a back seat to his three other future Hall of Fame teammates on the Warriors. Steph Curry has won two MVPs, Kevin Durant has won two Finals MVPs, and Draymond Green has been a Defensive Player of the Year, but Thompson hasn’t even made an All-NBA team since 2016, much to his (and his bank account’s) dismay. What he does have is a long résumé of playoff heroics, most notably scoring 41 points to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against the Thunder in 2016. He will get another chance to add to his legend in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals on Thursday. With no Durant, the Warriors will need Klay to play at a nearly superhuman level in what will be the last NBA game ever in Oracle Arena.

Thompson has been up to the challenge so far. He never averaged 20 points per game in any of his four Finals against the Cavaliers, but he’s averaging 25 points on 52.1 percent shooting in four games against the Raptors despite missing Game 3 with a strained hamstring. Klay is also averaging more assists (three per game) than ever before in the Finals, while shooting more 3-pointers (8.8 per game) at a higher percentage (57.1).

This is a version of Klay that we haven’t gotten to see much since KD came to Golden State. In the 2017 and 2018 postseasons, the first two of the Durant era, Thompson averaged more than 20 points per game in just one series out of eight (a first-rounder in 2018 against the Spurs in which Steph didn’t play). He averaged more than 20 in four of their eight series in the 2015 and 2016 postseasons, as well as in this year’s series against the Trail Blazers and Raptors, during which Durant played a total of 12 minutes. Thompson is also showing a more well-rounded offensive game now that he is getting the opportunity to do more.

Klay has always been unique. He’s an all-time great off-ball shooter in an era when most star guards are pick-and-roll ball handlers. There aren’t many other players who could have an offense run through them based on their ability to move without the ball. He has great size (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) for a shooting guard as well as an incredibly quick release, and he never seems to get tired. What has changed for Thompson in the past few seasons is that he has gotten better at putting the ball on the floor, scoring off the dribble, and making plays for his teammates on the move. He’s a much more versatile scorer. He showed every part of his arsenal—posting up, driving and pulling up after coming off screens, and even attacking mismatches off the dribble—while scoring 28 in Game 4 and 26 in Game 5 against the Raptors.

His growth as a passer has been even more impressive. It’s probably not a coincidence that Golden State’s two wins in this year’s Finals have come when he had four assists or more. Klay is not a traditional playmaker who swings passes across the court after driving around a ball screen. Most of his assists come as extensions of things he always did well: dumping the ball off to the screener when he is doubled on the catch, getting into the lane and making the next pass when the defense collapses, and drawing two defenders before moving the ball in transition. It all revolves around the threat of his jumper. Klay is such a great shooter that it makes every other part of his game easier.

Klay’s value to the Warriors became more apparent in KD’s absence in the Finals (much like Durant’s). Steph Curry had a transcendent offensive performance (47 points on 14-of-31 shooting) without either in Game 3, and the Raptors still won, 123-109. Golden State didn’t have nearly enough without KD and Klay—they didn’t have a legitimate second option or anyone to spread the floor besides Curry, and they were missing two of their top defenders. They don’t even have a backup shooting guard on the roster; Warriors head coach Steve Kerr started Shaun Livingston, an aging point guard who has attempted four 3-pointers this season, at the 2. Their only other options on their bench are a 6-foot-2 combo guard (Quinn Cook) and an inexperienced small forward with a shaky jumper (Alfonzo McKinnie).

There isn’t much talent left on the Golden State roster after all of their injuries. The Splash Brothers combined for 48 points in their wins in Game 2 and 57 in Game 5. They may each need 30-plus in Game 6, and for Thompson to run the offense when Curry is out. DeMarcus Cousins, their only other player who can create his own shot, is a defensive liability whom the Raptors attacked throughout games 3, 4, and 5. It’s easy to guard the Warriors when Cousins is out and there isn’t a third shooter on the floor. Forget the box-and-one; Toronto head coach Nick Nurse used another middle school defense (a triangle-and-two) against Thompson and Curry in the fourth quarter of Game 5.

Klay will have just as much responsibility on defense. He has logged the second-most possessions as the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard in the series (90), behind only Andre Iguodala (157). One of the adjustments that Kerr made after Pascal Siakam’s star turn in Game 1 was shuffling defensive assignments in his starting lineup to put Iguodala on Siakam, Thompson on Kawhi, and Draymond on Kyle Lowry. Klay has done as good a job as could be expected on Kawhi, limiting a player in the midst of an all-time great postseason to only 5-for-14 shooting. Klay has the size and quickness to shadow Leonard all over the floor and bother his shot. The one thing he lacks is the strength to prevent Kawhi from throwing him off-balance, drawing contact, and going to the foul line (he’s had nine free throw attempts drawn against him). Thompson has to keep the easy points to a minimum in Game 6. Kerr moved away from using McKinnie on Kawhi in Game 5, a strategy he will probably continue with the season on the line.

There are not many players who have ever been able to do as much as Thompson on both ends of the floor. His consistency is unreal. He is tied with Steph for the most seasons (seven) with at least 200 made 3s. Second place is James Harden and Ray Allen with five; Reggie Miller has one. Klay also makes 3s at an incredibly high clip: He has never shot below 40 percent from 3 in any of his eight seasons in the NBA. He’s an all-time great shooter in an era when that skill has never been more valuable, and he’s the rare great shooter who also doubles as a great defender. It’s fairly surprising that he made only one All-Defense team in his career: this season, on the second team. Klay has been one of the best defenders on one of the best defenses in the league going back to when Mark Jackson was the head coach in Golden State.

Thompson’s ability to defend multiple positions allows Curry to hide on defense, while his ability to put up huge scoring numbers without needing the ball allows Curry to play with another All-Star guard without fighting for touches. Steph doesn’t have the same fit issues with Klay that Harden has with Chris Paul and Damian Lillard has with CJ McCollum. Paul George might be the only other star in the league who could handle Klay’s role. It would be fascinating to see what Klay would do with as much freedom on offense as George. Thompson is not as good a ball handler as the Thunder All-Star, but it’s also not hard to imagine him averaging more than 25 points per game without sacrificing much efficiency.

That could happen next season. Thompson hits unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career this offseason, and he will have a lot of options when he does. Almost every team in a big market has the cap space to sign someone to a max contract, and he would fit in almost any situation. He could choose to branch off on his own team and run his own offense if he wanted to. He could also play with LeBron James on the Lakers, where his dad Mychal won multiple titles in the 1980s. He even reportedly has a role in Space Jam 2. Most people around the league have long assumed that Thompson will re-sign with the Warriors, but they will not be able to offer him a supermax contract because he didn’t make an All-NBA team this season, limiting their contractual advantage to, essentially, one extra year.

But he doesn’t have to leave Golden State to get a bigger role in the offense. While it’s almost impossible to know what Durant will do this offseason after injuring his Achilles, one thing we do know is that Klay would have more to do if he comes back. The Warriors will have to be the Splash Brothers show; whether Durant leaves or stays, he’ll spend most of next season on the mend. The Warriors don’t have the cap space to re-sign Klay and bring in another a big free agent. Strength in Numbers is dead. Cousins may leave, while Iguodala will be in his age-36 season, and Livingston may retire. If Klay stays, he will get more offense run through him than ever before.

Next season could be the beginning of Phase III for Golden State. They will always try to be a player in free agency with Joe Lacob as their owner, if for no other reason than to keep his brand-new arena in San Francisco filled. One possibility would be retooling around Steph and Klay, letting Draymond walk in the summer of 2020, and trying to make a run at Anthony Davis in 2020 or Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. The Splash Brothers should still be a draw for other stars at that point since their games should allow them to age well. Everyone wants to play with guards with their kind of shooting ability. Three different stars were knocked out of the playoffs by the Warriors and joined them the following season (Iguodala, Durant, and Cousins). That says a lot about the way other players view Thompson and Curry.

Klay, who turned 29 in February, should be a great player for a long time to come. Elite shooters can play at a high level forever, and they peak at an older age than most stars. Ray Allen had his two highest-scoring seasons at 30 and 31, and he was an All-Star at 35 with the Celtics. He was the sixth man on a Heat team that won an NBA championship when he was 37 and went to the Finals at 38. Reggie Miller made his final All-Star Game at 34 and was a starter at 39 on a Pacers team that could have competed for a championship were it not for the Malice in the Palace. Klay could have half his career in front of him, assuming he stays healthy. That is never a safe assumption, as we saw with Durant, but there are few better bets to stay durable than Klay. Game 3 of the Finals was the first playoff game that he missed in his career. (And he would have played in Game 3 if they had let him.) There aren’t many players who could have been as effective as he was in games 4 and 5 after coming off a strained hamstring.

Thompson and Curry could go down as the best backcourt in NBA history. Klay won’t be remembered in the same category as Steph, but he’s an all-time great in his own right. He would be an automatic Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow. He is no. 16 in career 3-pointers in the regular season (1,798) and tied for no. 3 in the playoffs (370). I had Ringer statistician Zach Kram run the numbers, and he projected Klay will finish his career with 3,391 regular-season 3s, which would shatter Allen’s current record of 2,973. He is still behind the pace of Curry and Harden, but all three will put the record far out of reach until the next generation of shooters passes them. Klay has already had a legendary career. But the best could still be in front of him.